It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. There can be few other sets of football supporters that have had to bear up to the sort of agony and exhilaration that the supporters of Darlington FC have had to put up with yesterday but eventually, more than an hour after final confirmation one way or the other of the clubs fate was due to be announced, those concerned with saving the club emerged before the press to make the announcement that so many had hoped for: Darlington Football Club remains alive – for now, at least.
There had been a mood of cautious optimism amongst supporters on Tuesday evening. Rumours were filtering through that agreement to buy the club some breathing space was close to being agreed. As with so many long distance races, however, it was the final furlong that proved to be the most difficult. As messages of support poured in from the length and breadth of the country this morning, dark clouds began to form. It began to be reported that previous owner Raj Singh was reconsidering his previous offer to write off the debts that the club owed him. If he could not be persuaded to let go of this all but lost money, any attempts to rescue the club would become forlorn, to say the least.
Meanwhile, the administrators were meeting with those seeking to buy the club a little respite from its recent torment. As the clock approached noon – the deadline set by the administrator for a decision to have been made regarding the ongoing viability of the club – things became more frantic. The supporters club and the supporters trust each promised £10,000 towards the cause. There were rumours that an overseas-based supporter of the club had offered a substantial amount of money to help it through this storm. The administrators – having already informed manager Craig Liddle that the club was to close, a message immediately relayed to the recently released players – dropped everything to arrange a further meeting. There will be one final opportunity for Darlington FC to be rescued.
Whatever was discussed in this meeting was, as things turned out, enough. The administrator confirmed yesterday afternoon that the club could continue for a further three matches, precious breathing space which may yet secure the future of the club yet again. As such, the jubilation that the announcement was greeted with was tempered. There is still much work to do. At the end of today, the life support machine remains on and the patient remains in a critical but stable condition. It’s far from perfect – and the club could yet find itself folding in a couple of weeks’ time – but it is a start. It is certainly considerably more than supporters of the club have had to cling to since it first entered into administration.
Yesterday’s extraordinary events don’t quite save Darlington FC, although anyone eavesdropping amongst their support might have been persuaded that this was the case – or, indeed, that the club had won a league and cup double. What has been bought is that most precious of commodities: time. The clubs next three matches, starting on Saturday afternoon against title-chasing Fleetwood Town, to be followed by a trip to Hayes & Yeading United and a further home match against York City, will now go ahead, and the small window that this has created will grant the opportunity to those that wish to see Darlington stable and secure to fund-raise and seek new investment. We could be back in this position in two weeks time and the club may never again have the opportunity to cut it as fine as it did yesterday, but hope has been thin on the ground in that part of the world, and hope it is that all concerned with the club will have awoken this morning.
The optimism that has greeted the club over the last twenty-four hours or so may well be matched with a rise in attendances for its next couple of matches. The club’s average attendance during the 2005/06 season was 2,905. This has dropped to around 1,900 so far this season, but the publicity of the last seven days will undoubtedly bring back some – if not many – of those that have drifted away from the club over the last few years. As such, Saturday needs to be a charm offensive on the part of the club, welcoming back those lost souls, while raising as much money as possible towards securing the club’s future. As such, this might even be considered a golden opportunity for Darlington FC to re-engage with its supporters and with its home town, and it is one that we hope that the club will take advantage of to the fullest extent possible.
All of this good news, however, comes with a warning. The divisions amongst the club’s support must end with immediate effect. The supporters trust was given a dog’s abuse by some, and the resignation of two of its board members last week couldn’t have come at a worse time for everybody associated with the club that was wishing for its survival. Ultimately, a supporters trust is only as strong as its membership and all Darlington supporters would be well-advised to join it. It has been stated over the last few days or so that the trusts line of communications have ben found wanting at this most critical of times. What’s done, however, is done and the trust can only be strengthened by new members, imaginative ideas for the future and actively ensuring that it isn’t merely mothballed in preparation for the next time that Darlington FC has a near death experience. As a democratic organisation, changing its structure should be straightforward enough, although this may take time.
It is to be hoped that all associated with the club have learnt a lesson about unity this week. Moreover, we should proceed with cautious optimism that this time Darlington FC will be reborn as a club that both serves and benefits from its community. The phrase “community club” is often thrown around but, with phrases like this, the devil is more often than not in the detail. This club, however, has been betrayed by the ownership structure that continues to plague football in this country. If the club that emerges from this backs up its words regarding being a community club with positive action and breaks out of the cycle of ambition, over-spending, debt and near-collapse, then it might even turn out to be that the last few weeks were worthwhile. The decision over this, however, lies with the supporters of the club. A golden opportunity for rebirth lays before them. If the difficult next couple of weeks can be overcome, a Darlington Football Club working with its local council, for the benefit of the entire town that it represents might turn out, in the long term, to be a considerably more valuable prize for everybody than anything that could ever be won on the pitch.
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